Las Ventanas Restaurant and Cantina

I live in Houston where my neighbors and I used to refer to Las Alamedas as our “neighborhood restaurant”.  Back in early 2009, when it closed, we were disappointed by the loss of our nearest and favorite Mexican restaurant. George Sneider and his son Alex had provided us with an excellent Mexico City-style restaurant for family dining and a popular after-work meeting place.  It went away (not due to lack of business, but due to landlord disagreements)… and while I was whining about it, Alex was quietly working on a new restaurant called Las Ventanas (windows).  And windows it has! Actually, when I see the vast vistas in the restaurant and smell the aromas of the Mexican food, it reminds me of many homes in Mexico where the families have their windows open to the streets to entice their friends and neighbors with the aroma of the traditional family meals being prepared inside.
The tree-covered patio is the perfect place for dining on a Spring evening.
Las Ventanas is warm and comfortable and unlike many restaurants in Houston with patios… I LOVE this tree-covered patio… especially at night. The restaurant’s décor is casual yet elegant enough in a Mexican homey way to feel special for an important occasion in the evening.  I was attracted to a slightly raised nook with a table for six that’s sort of a “captain’s table” adorned with impressive Talavera pottery pieces… perfect for business entertaining or a family evening.
Ceviche Acapulco
As a travel/food writer specializing in Mexico regional cuisines, I seek out those authentic influences in dishes and I found the Ceviche Acapulco to be a perfect example as an appetizer.  Red Snapper with shrimp, lump crab meat, olives, and capers, all marinated in lime and cilantro was excellent.  While it was typical of some restaurants on the public beach in Acapulco, the olives reminded me of Veracruz.
Jalapeños Rellenos
True to my Tex-Mex roots, as a fourth-generation Houstonian, I never go to a Mexican restaurant without sampling the “poppers” (Jalapeños Rellenos) and these ranked among the best with fresh jalapeños filled with shrimp, queso fresco and cream cheese, deep fried and served with a cilantro ranch sauce.  While there may be a touch of Tex-Mex here, this restaurant celebrates Mexico and its culinary diversity… NOT its merging with the cuisines of Texas and the southwest.
Parrillada las Ventanas
Some house specialties are made for sharing and the quantities are huge, such as the Parrillada las Ventanas (for two).  Served with its own stainless steel warmer at the table, this combination of grilled meats includes Spanish chorizo, marinated chicken breast, 4 jumbo shrimp and beef tenderloin all seasoned with grilled poblano peppers and onions. The aroma as it’s carried through the restaurant to a table gets orders for it from those diners in its path.
Paella las Ventanas
For a family style visual treat, I recommend the Paella las Ventanas.  This medley of shrimp, clams, mussels, Spanish chorizo, pork and chicken is all cooked and served with saffron rice.  All of the items you would expect to find here are available, from Carne Asada to filets and Huachinango Veracruz (fresh snapper Veracruz-style). For me, the seafood and grilled entrees are destination items here.
Jumbo Sea Scallops
But sometimes, you want what you want and family-style isn’t your thing that day.  A good choice at Las Ventanas might be the Jumbo Sea Scallops.  Seeing a dish overcome its riskiness and delight with its perfection is what happens with this dish.  Taking huge sea scallops which must be tender and “medium” and wrapping them with Serrano peppers and bacon which must be “done” is the challenge met successfully here.  Placed, juicy and sweetly-caramelized around a cone of sautéed spinach and drizzled with a creamy Lobster Tequila Sauce, this is an entrée that you owe at least one taste of to your dining partner.
Pescado al Mango
Pescado al Mango is a delicate sautéed presentation of Mahi Mahi (Dorado) nestled on a rice cake then complimented with the sweetness of a Dry Vermouth Mango Habanero sauce.  Mahi Mahi benefits from this sweet sauce with the slight presence of smoky habanero to help you remember fondly that last bite. 
Tres Leches
We polished off the meal with two desserts that were coupled perfectly with an obligatory  cup of cappuccino.  Houstonians are no strangers to Tres Leches cake and Las Ventanas’ is as good… creamy… moist as any I have had in Houston.  It’s the cake that you eat and drink at the same time.  This one is light and soaked with their signature milk cream, topped with whipped cream icing and drizzled with Las Ventanas’ own house-made chocolate syrup.
Chocolate Chocolate Cake
Speaking of chocolate, some must have chocolate cake for dessert.  This one is so rich that they have to use the word “chocolate” twice in its name.
It’s not still in my neighborhood, but worth the short drive.  Las Ventanas is located at 14555 Grisby Road, one block east of Highway 6 between I-10 and Memorial Drive.
1555 Grisby Road
Houston, TX 77079

Saturday Lunch at Philippe Restaurant and Lounge

A great cocktail is a cocktail one drinks without thirst… Philippe Schmit.
I might normally try a restaurant two or three times before writing a review.  However, that’s a restaurant review… this is a meal review.  We dropped in at Philippe for a quick lunch on a Saturday.  This is a lunch review.  This new restaurant has been opened for a month, so kinks have been smoothed out and we were anxious and hungry.  Handing the keys to a valet at noon for a restaurant that opens at 12:00 is a little early, but we hadn’t beaten the owners of a Ferrari and a Bentley parked at the door.  That’s Post Oak Boulevard for you. We went in anyway. Philippe is large (as in large dining areas AND living large).   Upon entering, the downstairs area is strikingly casual and contemporary… sort of Hotel Derek (Philippe Schmit’s former home) meets Kenya.  Passing through the jungle print bar area, we headed up a rather grand staircase to the dining room upstairs… still not too formal and rather comfortable. However, we DID wonder if there was too much emphasis on maximum seating at the expense of tummy room, as it was quite a task to get in and out of the booth we chose.
The wait staff was polished and management was solicitous.  That raises the comfort level substantially.  I don’t know why I do this food writing thing, as I’m trying to lose weight… not much, but SOME.  That was problematic only because the menu was quite inviting, so we ordered more than we really wanted… and I’m not sure that we ordered what this restaurant was created for.  We saw a monster burger being served at the next table and imagined that “have it your way” really means that here.  I didn’t think the restaurant was made for burgers, either.
Sherried Onion Soup
We started with a “Sherried Onion Soup” and it was as I imagined Philippe would have served it. Topped with a bubbly gruyere cheese and dark rich in color, the Sherry was key in the aroma of this first course… a really rich offering.  So far so good.  Very nice.
Carrot Soup
We also ordered a delightful Carrot Soup.  Visually inviting, this soup was another aroma treat with a touch of cumin and fresh ginger.  It was a toss-up between the carrot and the onion soups.  There was a “soup of the day”, but that’s never lobster bisque wherever I go, so I didn’t ask.
Smoked Salmon with Pumpkin and Swiss cheese quiche
The Frenchie was next and I hesitate to describe it as I can’t stay away from superlatives when talking about it. Tender smoked salmon was served with a pumpkin and Swiss cheese quiche along with a bed of garden greens and fennel. I just don’t think I’ve ever had a quiche that I could describe as “perfect”. Until now.  This creamy quiche had a shell that would have been worth ordering even if it were empty. The quiche truly made this a brunch instead of a lunch. Very nice.
Asian Chicken Salad
Next to arrive was a Thai chicken salad that, as tasty and creative as it was, had a slight flaw… its presentation. The salad of Boston lettuce, snow peas, soy beans and a Thai dressing all with an expertly cooked moist breast of chicken is brought out nestled in paper in a wooden serving bowl… then ceremoniously transferred to your plate on the paper.  The slight flaw?  The paper gets soggy and toward the end, you WILL get some paper in your mouth.  This is a very small thing considering the fact that the salad itself is delicious and the juicy chicken is perfectly cooked.  But while I recommend the salad, I also recommend that you order it sans paper.
Jasmine Crème Brulée
Desserts all looked good frankly, and we were too full to eat one but still ordered a Jasmine Crème Brulée with banana ice cream and a butter cookie.  Like a multi-media piece of art, we didn’t want to mess it up… but it was delicious.
I’m sure that Philippe is an experience in the evening and we’re anxious to give it a try.  As far as lunch is concerned, it’s highly recommended.
Philippe Restaurant and Lounge
Boulevard Place
1800 Post Oak Boulevard

There’s Always Been a Christie’s!

There are some things that seem to have always been there as I grew up in the Houston area.  Living in Shore Acres as a child, the bounty of Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico provided most of the meals for us.  We loved to eat out as a family and that included driving into Houston to eat delicious fresh Gulf Coast seafood at Christie’s.  I remember fondly the location in the Medical Center near the Shamrock Hotel.  Providing seafood to this area for decades (before I was born), the first foodservice venture by this immigrant family was established by Theodore Christie (born in Istanbul in 1885). He started selling Fish Sandwiches on the waterfront in Galveston in the little food stand he founded in 1917.  The sandwiches were made with Speckled Trout in those days and thankfully, trout were plentiful, as after he moved his business to the Medical Center location in Houston, he was selling 10,000 sandwiches a week. 
 The famous Christie’s Fish Sandwich started it all
He also invented a couple of other things while he was at it… the Fish Stick (which became wildly popular nationwide in the 50’s) and then the locally famous Christie’s Fisherman’s Platter, a combo of various fried Gulf Coast seafood, which was copied everywhere.
An Old Postcard from Christie’s
Theodore’s son, James Christie moved the restaurant to the Westheimer location in 1979 (Thank you very much as it’s a few blocks from our home) and made it into the local institution it is today.  James,  Alexandra and their daughters Maria and Kathy are constant influences maintaining the good family name and the quality of the food.  James will be quick to tell you that there will never be an overcooked shrimp on his watch. 
A few years ago, I was at The Palm (across Westheimer from Christie’s) and I asked the waiter what kind of fish he had fresh that day.  He pointed out the window and said “We’re a steak house.  If you want seafood, go to Christie’s like I do.”
 Flounders are served broiled, blackened or stuffed with crabmeat.
Flounders are big deals here on the Gulf Coast and flounders are why we go to Christie’s.  They get them in fresh on Thursday and they are broiled, blackened and stuffed until they are gone.  They usually are available through Saturday night and when they’re gone… they’re gone until next week.  Sometimes regulars planning to go to dinner on the weekends call ahead to make sure that they are still available and even ask to reserve them.  They’re so big, they hang off of both sides of the platter.
 We enjoy the oyster bar area, as I’m a news junkie and the big screen TV quietly keeps cable news going during the day.   They sell so many oysters that you know that they are always going to be fresh.  
 There’s not an ounce of pretense at Christie’s and if you are worrying about what you’re wearing, you’re the only one.  Oh yes, they still sell the famous Fish Sandwich (adorned with lettuce, tomatoes and their signature sauce)… but today it is made with Red Snapper, due to limited availability of trout.   Outstanding – crisp, hot and fresh!  You can almost hear the breakers….
Oysters Rockefeller are the starter of choice at Christie’s.
 On our last visit we had the Broiled Flounder (as always) and Oysters Rockefeller served without aplomb, which the Christies serve topped with crisp bacon strips and the perfect amount of spinach to our liking. We ordered the Fish Sandwich to photograph, thinking it was going to be too much to eat.  It WAS too much to eat, but we ate it anyway.  And it took me back to my childhood. Thanks for the memories.
Christie’s Seafood and Steaks
6029 Westheimer
Houston, Texas 77057

Ocean’s… A Place for Ceviche & Margaritas

Friday date night in Houston and plenty of choices for a light dinner after an opening at Darke Gallery, so Sally and I cruised several restaurants we had been considering trying.  We thought we had remembered reading something about a scallop ceviche at Ocean’s in Culture Map, but our memory was fuzzy on that.  At any rate, we stopped at Ocean’s…  a place for Ceviche Wine and Margaritas on West Alabama near Montrose.  I have to mention the fact that we were turned off by the sign in the parking lot that valet parking was $5.00 and seemed to be mandatory.  A restaurant in Houston doesn’t usually have to inform its customers how much to give a valet attendant.
We parked in a spot that God evidently had provided for us on the curb at the front door (now that I think of it, there was a spot at the front door for us at the gallery, also).  Five star day.  We were greeted at the door by the young attractive owner, Jorge Alvarez from Mexico City, and cheerfully seated by a hostess in a dining room that shouldn’t have had as many choices for us as it did. We chose a nice cozy table where we could have a quiet dinner.  Due to the name of the restaurant, we assumed that a margarita would be in order and Sally enjoyed the Ocean’s house margarita. 
Ocean’s Margarita de la Casa
I might have expected to see several different Magaritas in a place named partially after the drink, but according to Sally, the drink was delightfully tart, freshly squeezed and surprisingly akin to those that we get in Mexico (or, even Santa Fe), rather than the overly sweet versions usually served here in Houston. 
The vision of the anticipated scallop ceviche faded as we discussed the menu with our waitress and saw that there wasn’t such a thing on it.  No problem, however, as there were some tasty-sounding choices to enjoy. 
Lobster Sope
As a starter, we were attracted to Sally’s favorite citizen of the deep in the form of a Lobster Sope… a perfectly grilled lobster with black beans, sour cream, olives, mesclun, shaved parmesan with olive oil (underpriced at $16.00).  Nice starter.  We should have ordered two, though, as it has around 3-4 ounces of lobster tail and, as an appetizer, is too small for an entrée but you don’t want to stop with just one.
We learned that the ceviche descriptions don’t mention specific fish on them as they are all served with your choice of Yellow Fin Tuna or Salmon. 
Rasurado Ceviche
 Our first entrée was the Rasurado Ceviche with serrano chiles, shaved white onion, avocado, chipotle sauce, two house sauces, cilantro and extra virgin olive oil (for $14.00).  We chose salmon and it was a very fresh sashimi-grade cut that went beautifully with the other ingredients.  As the others are, it was served on a rectangular plate about 14 inches long. On all ceviches, the presentation is creative, crisp and beautiful.  They were also, incidentally, tasty (if not huge).
Sinaloa Ceviche
Next we ordered the Sinaloa Ceviche with red onion, olives, chiltepín chiles, white vinegar, a house sauce, avocado and extra virgin olive oil ($14.00). We were a little surprised by the fact that there wasn’t a Dorado (Mahi Mahi) choice for this one similar to the ceviches that we get on our trips to Mazatlan in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.  However, again, it worked with the Ahi Tuna.  It looked a little Veracruzana in makeup, considering the olives, but was a delicious ceviche regardless of the name. 
Ocean’s Tower
We asked for something “off the menu” and were treated by what Jorge called an Ocean’s Tower with diced peppered salmon and an avocado and mango salad on a bed of rice with spicy mayonnaise. It also came with a jalapeno and a chipotle puree for sauces.  We shared this and both really enjoyed it.  The pureed jalapeno sauce added a really nice edge to the peppered salmon (This one would have been equally wonderful with a tuna substitution for the salmon).
Also on the menu are various Tacos and Tostadas with ingredients ranging from Filet Mignon to Diver Scallops to Shrimp, so those seeking a heavier fare (and scallops) will not be disappointed.
Prices range up to $28.00 for the Seafood Rissotto.
819 West Alabama, Houston, TX 77006

Mangola’s Italian Restaurant

Sometimes things happen to take you back to the past a bit.  Driving on the Southwest Freeway in Houston, we glanced over and saw Mangola’s on the feeder street. We used to eat at Mangola’s Italian restaurant years ago, and went for one thing and one thing alone.  Mussels in white wine sauce. There were other things on the menu, of course, but I don’t remember noticing them. Served in a big cast iron kettle between us, we were always well-fed and seemed to take some home with us.  I remember Mangola’s burning down, several years ago, but this was how I found that they had reopened some time ago.

Well, it’s a different experience now.  Not bad, mind you, but different.  It used to have the feel of a small Mulberry Street Italian restaurant in Little Italy… but now seems larger and more open since the renovation.  At any rate, we stopped in with our Living Social certificate and were treated like big tipping regulars.  New and shiny with white table cloths… but no fuss.  House salads,  served automatically with entrées are fresh mixed greens on a chilled plate with a house-made creamy Italian dressing on the side (again, automatically) in a non-pretentious little stainless steel cup. I didn’t get a chance to ask for the dressing on the side (which I seldom do, anyway) as I didn’t know the salad was coming.  So far, it was like eating in an Italian restaurant in the 50’s or 60’s before the trendy northern Italian restaurant invasion.
Mussels with White Wine Sauce
Sad news is that our waitress never heard of them ever serving a kettle of mussels in white wine sauce.  Damn.  That was what we came for.  “We DO, however have an appetizer of mussels” she said.  We ordered that and found that while the chef and the waitress had a memory lapse, the mussels and sauce were the same and it was good enough to make tears well up in my eyes.  Add the fresh garlic bread to “sop” with and the dish was complete.
Shrimp Fra Divalo
Next we ordered Shrimp Fra Diavolo and, frankly, were surprised at its depth.   Nice. Really nice.  The marinara was touched by just enough red pepper flakes to make your palate remember that it had recently done its job, but it wasn’t oppressive heat.  The shrimp were large and were cooked perfectly… springy to the bite and not even slightly overcooked.  The spaghetti was al dente and it was a truly delightful dish.
Spinach Manicotti, Mushroom Cannelloni and Eggplant
Where today would you find a combination plate outside of a Mexican restaurant? Had our next course not been 100% Italian, I would have expected Italian/Mexican fusion.  We ordered a “Baked Pasta Combo #3” comprised of Spinach Manicotti, Mushroom Cannelloni, and Eggplant.  Served in an individual baking dish, all was complimented by a rich red sauce and bubbling mozzarella and parmesan.  I was not hoping to find something to gripe about, but if I had been… this wasn’t it either.  Serious southern Italian comfort food, in my opinion.  I was worried.  This review was heading toward being a puff piece.  Maybe they would mess up dessert.
Dessert was a crispy Cannoli filled with creamy ricotta and topped with a rich chocolate sauce and shaved chocolate.  Our waitress served it for sharing and we did, with glee.  Followed by espresso (which I would have loved to have hotter… there, I found something served there that wasn’t perfect), we had a delightful lunch at Mangola’s. 
11786 South Wilcrest at Highway 59 south in Houston

Caffe Bello Taverna e Pizzeria

I didn’t really plan to write a review tonight … it was my birthday after all.  Even a busman takes a holiday.  Somehow, though, I knew I was going to take a camera in when I handed my keys to the valet. It wasn’t the fact that there was a valet (the Vallones would have a valet if they opened a burger joint).  It’s just that Vallone Restaurant Group people, including the valets, all have that “way” about them and I knew that the “touches” were all going to be there.  So, I walked into the light and entered Caffe Bello Taverna e Pizzeria, the newest Vallone concept, and immediately felt comfortable in jeans and a sweater.
Perfectly fitting the colorful Montrose neighborhood it’s nestled in, Caffe Bello’s clientele are a cross section of Houston. It’s inexpensive enough to attract the neighborhood “starving artist-types”, trendy enough to comfort the well-heeled Tony’s regulars and best of all… has a menu creative enough to attract serious foodies.
Seated near the colorful and comfortably packed bar area, we grabbed a table where we could watch the indigenous neighborhood characters move up and down the sidewalk outside (That’s a show in itself)… even on a night when most Houstonians were staying home due to cold weather and forecast light snow.
On a menu that includes several artisan Pizzettas, or individual pizzas such as the familiar Margherita and Italian Sausage and Peppers, we chose from offerings that rendered the menu at a California Pizza Kitchen to that of a Pizza Hut.  From choices like Baby Alba Truffle; Baby Shrimp & Pancetta Fra Diavolo; and more, we started with a Bresaola, Pear, Tallegio and Italian Truffle Honey Pizzetta.  At once savory and sweet, it was perfect to set the palate for either direction we chose to go (which was both ways).
The Picolo (appetizer) selections suggest to you that you might be perfectly happy using it as a tapas menu and just grazing all night.  Chicken Wings Salmoriglio with a Mint Vinaigrette;  Meatballs with Cheesy Polenta and Pomodoro;  Zuppa di Pesce;  Calves Liver Veneziana with Cipollini Onions and Balsamico and over a dozen more starters that meld the Vallone family’s traditional southern Italian roots into surprising hybrids relevant in today’s fusionistic dining trends.
We split a Pulcinella salad with Frisee, Arugula, Sweet Basil, Fig, Candied Hazelnuts, and a Parmesan Vinaigrette.  The components of this salad were so varied yet supportive, each of the other, it was fun to jump around from ingredient to ingredient. 
From the salad, we slid into Cappelletti, little hats filled with Truffle Scented Mascarpone on a fragrant bed of Sage Butter… then to Crispy Baby Artichokes where the star was a Lemon Aioli that had a surprising and gentle bite that made us polish it off with a spoon after we finished the artichokes.
Crispy Baby Artichokes
Entrees are, again, typical of Vallone Italian restaurant selections with no taste left unsatisfied.  From seafood to foul to lamb and beef, all are represented and we settled reluctantly on only three to pass around. Lamb Scottadita with Asparagus Pecorino (Charred medium rare unless you choose to ask that it be ruined) was tender American Lamb T-Bones.  
Lamb Scottadita
We were offered a creamy Shrimp and Calamari Milanese on Saffron Risotto which was an off-the-menu beauty created from always-available ingredients.  I suggest that you ask if this is available when you are in for dinner as it is a trademark of a Vallone kitchen to prepare seafood staples for the Mediterranean diet perfectly and two things a Vallone chef wouldn’t dare mess up are calamari and risotto.
Shrimp and Calamari Melanese
A key professional in every Vallone kitchen is the saucier and Caffe Bello’s cocina is no exception.  The star of the Roasted Salmon Barolo was its Italian red wine reduction and we would have ordered a “side” of the Sautéed Spinach that accompanied it, if we hadn’t already overdone it with the generous proportions on three shamelessly ordered entrees. 
Roasted Salmon Barolo
It’s not over till the future fat lady sings… but with dessert here, it’s definitely going be over!  While you can never go wrong with Elizabeth’s Chocolate Chip Cheesecake (requisite in every Vallone restaurant), we finished off the experience with a Berry Tart (fresh Strawberries and Blueberries with a Crème Anglaise and Berry Coulis in a Graham Cracker cup) and a decadent Chocolate OMG! Cake (the gooiest Tuxedo cake you will ever find anywhere).
Berry Tart
Chocolate OMG! Cake
Our host for the evening, John Silvestro was the consummate professional and guide through the menu.  When asked for suggestions, his empathetic recommendations always delighted us.
Caffe Bello
322 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77006
Fax 713-520-5588

Chili’s new logo aimed at the Tex-Mex Ignorant?

As a fourth-generation Texan, long-time chili cook and cookoff contestant, I have always been critical of those restaurants that have the name “chili” in their names, yet don’t seem to know how to make the product.  I always felt that the Brinker International folks made a pretty reasonable bowl of chili and were serious when naming their restaurant “Chili’s” after Texas’ national dish. Examples of businesses that abuse the name “chili” and serve something other than what a reasonable person would call ”chili” might be found in Ohio (the homeland of non-chili being called chili)… such as Cincinnati Chili… which is defined by its beans and spaghetti and the infamous Skyline Chili (a Middle East-inspired concoction boasting cinnamon and allspice).  But, Chili’s? While Dallas isn’t known as the birthplace of chili… it IS in Texas and it’s the birthplace of Brinker International.  Anyway, this article isn’t about the quality of chili at Chili’s… it’s about whether or not Chili’s has hired ad people who don’t know the difference between Chili (a meat soup or stew seasoned with chiles) and Chile (Spanish for pepper).
 The new logo for Chili’s is a “chile” with an apostrophe, indicating the possessive of the word chile… or “Chile’s”.  No big deal, as I guess Chili’s has grown so much where they may have more stores out of chili country where the new logo isn’t a distraction… but it does get the attention of those who know the difference between a bowl of chili and a jalapeno. Did you say that Texas doesn’t own the patent on chili?  You’re right… but at least we know what it is.  And we damn-sure know what a “chile” is.
 The old logo may not be as cute, but it made sense:
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